IN RE GRIFFITHS, 413 U.S. 717 (1973)

Decided June 25, 1973

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a novel question as to the constraints imposed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the qualifications which a State may require for admission to the bar. Appellant, Fre Le Poole Griffiths, is a citizen of the Netherlands who came to the United States in 1965, originally as a visitor. In 1967 she married a citizen of the United States and became a resident of Connecticut. After her graduation from law school, she applied in 1970 for permission to take the Connecticut bar examination. The County Bar Association found her qualified in all respects save that she was not a citizen of the United States as required by Rule 8 (1) of the Connecticut Practice Book (1963), and on that account refused to allow her to take the examination. She then sought judicial relief, asserting that the regulation was unconstitutional but her claim was rejected, first by the Superior Court and ultimately by the Connecticut Supreme Court.  We noted probable jurisdiction, and now hold that the rule unconstitutionally discriminates against resident aliens. 


We begin by sketching the background against which the State Bar Examining Committee attempts to justify the total exclusion of aliens from the practice of law. From its inception, our Nation welcomed and drew strength from the immigration of aliens. Their contributions to the social and economic life of the country were self-evident, especially during the periods when the demand for human resources greatly exceeded the native supply. This demand was by no means limited to the unskilled or the uneducated. In 1873, this Court noted that admission to the practice of law in the courts of a State

But shortly thereafter, in 1879, Connecticut established the predecessor to its present rule totally excluding aliens from the practice of law. In subsequent decades, wide-ranging restrictions for the first time began to impair significantly the efforts of aliens to earn a livelihood in their chosen occupations. 

In the face of this trend, the Court nonetheless held in 1886 that a lawfully admitted resident alien is a "person" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment's  directive that a State must not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Yick Wo v. Hopkins. The decision in Yick Wo invalidated a municipal ordinance regulating the operation of laundries on the ground that the ordinance was discriminatorily enforced against Chinese operators. Some years later, the Court struck down an Arizona statute requiring employers of more than five persons to employ at least 80% "qualified electors or native-born citizens of the United States or some subdivision thereof." Truax v. Raich (1915). As stated for the Court by Mr. Justice Hughes:

To be sure, the course of decisions protecting the employment rights of resident aliens has not been an unswerving one. In Clarke v. Deckebach (1927), the Court was faced with a challenge to a city ordinance prohibiting the issuance to aliens of licenses to operate pool and billiard rooms. Characterizing the business as one having "harmful and vicious tendencies," the Court found no constitutional infirmity in the ordinance:

This easily expandable proposition supported discrimination against resident aliens in a wide range of occupations. 

But the doctrinal foundations of Clarke were undermined in Takahashi v. Fish & Game Comm'n, 334 U.S. 410 (1948), where, in ruling unconstitutional a California statute barring issuance of fishing licenses to persons "ineligible to citizenship," the Court stated that "the power of a state to apply its laws exclusively to its alien inhabitants as a class is confined within narrow limits.". Indeed, with the issue squarely before it in Graham v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 365 (1971), the Court concluded:

The Court has consistently emphasized that a State which adopts a suspect classification "bears a heavy burden of justification," a burden which, though variously formulated, requires the States to meet certain standards of proof. In order to justify the use of a suspect classification, a State must show that its purpose or interest is both constitutionally permissible and substantial, and that its use of the classification is "necessary . . . to the accomplishment" of its purpose or the safeguarding of its interest. 11  

Resident aliens, like citizens, pay taxes, support the economy, serve in the Armed Forces, and contribute in myriad other ways to our society. It is appropriate that a State bear a heavy burden when it deprives them of employment opportunities.


We hold that the Committee, acting on behalf of the State, has not carried its burden. The State's ultimate interest here implicated is to assure the requisite qualifications of persons licensed to practice law. It is undisputed that a State has a constitutionally permissible and substantial interest in determining whether an applicant  possesses "`the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law.'" But no question is raised in this case as to appellant's character or general fitness. Rather, the sole basis for disqualification is her status as a resident alien.

The Committee defends Rule 8 (1)'s requirement that applicants for admission to the bar be citizens of the United States on the ground that the special role of the lawyer justifies excluding aliens from the practice of law. In Connecticut, the Committee points out, the maxim that a lawyer is an "officer of the court" is given concrete meaning by a statute which makes every lawyer a "commissioner of the Superior Court." As such, a lawyer has authority to "sign writs and subpoenas, take recognizances, administer oaths and take depositions and acknowledgements of deeds."

In order to establish a link between citizenship and the powers and responsibilities of the lawyer in Connecticut, the Committee contrasts a citizen's undivided allegiance to this country with a resident alien's possible conflict of loyalties. From this, the Committee concludes that a resident alien lawyer might in the exercise of his functions ignore his responsibilities to the courts or even his clients in favor of the interest of a foreign power.

We find these arguments unconvincing. It in no way denigrates a lawyer's high responsibilities to observe that the powers "to sign writs and subpoenas, take recognizances, [and] administer oaths" hardly involve matters of state policy or acts of such unique responsibility as to entrust them only to citizens. Nor do we think that the practice of law offers meaningful opportunities adversely to affect the interest of the United States. Certainly the Committee has failed to show the relevance of citizenship to any likelihood that a lawyer will fail to protect faithfully the interest of his clients. 

Nor would the possibility that some resident aliens are unsuited to the practice of law be a justification for a wholesale ban....

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, with whom MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST joins, dissenting.

In the rapidly shrinking "one world" we live in there are numerous reasons why the States might appropriately consider relaxing some of the restraints on the practice of professions by aliens. The fundamental factor, however, is that the States reserved, among other powers, that of regulating the practice of professions within their own borders. If that concept has less validity now than in the 18th century when it was made part of the "bargain" to create a federal union, it is nonetheless part of that compact.

A large number of American nationals are admitted to the practice of law in more than a dozen countries; this will expand as world trade enlarges. But the question for the Court is not what is enlightened or sound policy but rather what the Constitution and its Amendments provide; I am unable to accord to the Fourteenth Amendment the expansive reading the Court gives it.

In recent years the Court, in a rather casual way, has articulated the code phrase "suspect classification" as though it embraced a reasoned constitutional concept. Admittedly, it simplifies judicial work as do "per se" rules, but it tends to stop analysis while appearing to suggest an analytical process.

I am unwilling to accept what seems to me a denigration of the posture and role of a lawyer as an "officer of the court." It is that role that a State is entitled to rely on as a basis for excluding aliens from the practice of law.....

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